Politics, Mortal and Natal: An Arendtian Rejoinder

 Originally Appeared in: Narrative: Volume 10, Number 2 | Published: May, 2002

A response to Post-partum by Lee Edelman

Is there a “space that ‘politics’ makes unthinkable, the space outside the frame within which ‘politics’ appears and thus outside the conflicting visions that share as their presupposition that the ‘body politic’ must survive” (“Post-Partum” 181)? What is that space? What would it mean to embrace or assume or embody the prevailing figuration of that space in order to disturb or refuse the political realm as such?

Having reflected on Lee Edelman’s carefully argued response to my criticism of “The Future Is Kid Stuff,” I think that the salient issues of contention between us lie in our respective responses to these questions.

There are indeed spaces outside the political realm. The form they take varies according to the nature of the political order.

In Eastern Europe under communist rule, for example, there emerged a significant refusal of politics. The Hungarian writer George Konrad called it “anti-politics.” Communist states, particularly after the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the suppression of Solidarity in Poland, denied all avenues for citizens to organize or express themselves within the political sphere. Moreover, the mechanisms of one-party rule made every facet of life political by exerting control over intellectual and artistic life, public opinion, even individuals’ choice of occupation and housing and their freedom of movement. The repression of conflict within the political realm went hand-in-hand with the omnipresent reach of politics into the nonpolitical realm. Citizens could counteract the omnipresence of the state, Konrad argued, only by refusing politics and devoting their minds and activities to whatever remaining spaces eluded the reach of the state (see Konrad’s Anti-Politics). This withdrawal from politics was painful, precarious, and risky, but had unexpected political effects; the anti-political citizens contributed to the eventual collapse of Soviet-bloc communism by gradually, nearly invisibly, withholding the passive legitimation and motivation that the state had required of them to sustain itself. The communist state, which had wrapped itself from the beginning in the mythology of revolutionary futurism, did not survive.

Decades of dissidence in the Soviet bloc helped resuscitate the concept of civil society for Western social critics, especially those in the Marxist tradition, who had in a sense come to take civil society for granted or merely equated it with “bourgeois” society. Stated negatively, “civil society” designated the realms of human activity Eastern Europeans could not freely pursue. How, then, to conceptualize civil society in Western democracies? I take my bearings from Claude Lefort, who took up this question in a framework relevant to the debate between Edelman and me.

In modern societies, according to Lefort, the “social” is a field of continual “differentiation, internal opposition and change” (218). Divisions actively and perpetually volatilize all social relations. These social divisions include, first, class divisions (which, contrary to Marx’s theorization and expectations, do not distill themselves into an antagonistic polarity between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) and, second, the broader plurality of often-conflicting initiatives undertaken by individuals, communities, and associations pursuing their economic or cultural aims. Just as important as these two aspects of social division is a third: “the differentiation of economic, legal, educational, scientific, aesthetic and other practices, which exist, not simply as given practices (in the pores of society to use the Marxist metaphor), but as practices in which the reality of the social as such is put into play.” These various social discourses do not conform to the traditional notion of ideology. First, ea ch social discourse is “concerned to claim a universal truth,” but because it is a particular discourse differentiated from the others it cannot lay claim to a knowledge of the social order as a whole. Second, each discourse, as knowledge, exercises power in the social world, but at the same time, as discourse, is susceptible to being contested on account of its tie to some particular force within the general social division; there is an “oscillation … between the discourse of power and the power of discourse” that “contains the possibility of a disjunction between power and discourse.” Lefort concludes, “in its very deployment each discourse forms a relation to knowledge, the limits of which are not strictly determined in the sense that there is no general knowledge of the order of the world and of the social order in conjunction with the power of the state” (187-88).

Lefort then distinguishes democracy from totalitarianism, fascist or communist, according to how each of these “political forms of modern society” institutionalizes the political representation of the “social.” The task of the modern state–democratic, fascist, or communist–is to represent the social, since the social world lacks any religious or transcendent representation of its organization and hierarchies. But by the same token, the “real” of the social, in Lefort’s terms, is unrepresentable, since the political representation of the social must arise from the social itself and the social is precisely ceaseless division, conflict, and differentiation.

Totalitarianism, fascist or communist, attempts to obliterate the conflicts inherent in the “social,” that is, to give the state a form in which it unifies society by over-coming the open-ended division of classes, the plurality of economic and cultural initiatives, and the differentiation of social discourses:

Whereas in [bourgeois society], the power of representation is maintained by a constant displacement of the “solution,” a deferring of the contradiction by virtue of the gap between agencies of discourse, in totalitarianism there is a brute affirmation of the identity of the representation and the real. … In the first, discourse is organized in terms of constant compromises between the principal antagonists, whereas in the second …, the very attempt to efface the opposition between the state and civil society and to render perceptible the unity of the political and the non-political presupposes that the logic of the norm appears within the form of social relations, here and now, that is, that a system of articulations is deployed by virtue of which power can be diffused without running the risk of being divided. (218)

In my view, Edelman effaces this difference between democracy and totalitarianism. He attributes to democracy the workings of totalitarianism: he makes no distinction between civil society and the state, equates “the social order” with politics as such, and equates both with the symbolic order. This misconception of democratic politics is what anchors his call for “a true oppositional politics” whose meaning-dissolving, identity-dissolving ironies would come from “the space outside the frame within which ‘politics’ appears” (“Post-Partum” 181). The democratic state, as opposed to the totalitarian, does not rule civil society but secures its possibility and flourishing; conversely, civil society is the nonpolitical realm from which emerge those initiatives that transform, moderately or radically, the political realm of laws and rights. For that very reason, the political frame of laws and rights, and of debate and decision, is intrinsically inadequate to the plurality of projects and the social divisions within society–there is always a gap in its political representation of the “real” of the social–and for that very reason the political realm itself is open to change and innovation.

Innovation is a crucial concept for understanding the gay and lesbian movement, which emerged from within civil society as citizens who were stigmatized and often criminalized for their sexual lives created new forms of association, transformed their own lifeworld, and organized a political offensive on behalf of political and social reforms. There was an innovation of rights and freedoms, and what I have called innovations in sociality.

Contrary to the liberal interpretation of liberal rights and freedoms, I do not think that gays and lesbians have merely sought their place at the table. Their struggle has radically altered the scope and meaning of the liberal rights and freedoms they sought, first and foremost by making them include sexuality, sexual practices, and the shape of household and family. Where the movement has succeeded in changing the laws of the state, it has also opened up new possibilities within civil society. To take an obvious example, wherever it becomes unlawful to deny housing to individuals because they are gay, there is set in motion a transformation of the everyday life of neighborhoods, including the lives of heterosexuals and their children. Within civil society, this is a work of enlightenment, however uneven and fraught and frequently dangerous. It is not a reaffirmation of the symbolic and structural underpinnings of homophobia; on the contrary, it is a challenge to homophobia and a volatilizing of social relations within the nonpolitical realm.

I referred in “Queer Post-Politics” to the bars and the baths as “a cultural creation, a subculture” and therefore an innovation in sociality. Can American society accommodate this innovation in sociality? I need to clarify my view of this question, since Edelman infers from what I wrote that I think American society can. I do not at all make that assumption. I introduced this formulation to dispute the theoretical pertinence of the logical opposition between sociality and asociality, and more specifically because I do not think the practices and activities of gays are asocial. The bars and the baths have been a lightning rod for homophobia and for the conservative gay backlash, and they are probably a virtual emblem for the majority of Americans of what’s unacceptable in gay life. As a political question, these are the reasons I affirmed the importance of defending the bars and the baths; they represent a crucial right to sexual freedom in private and public spaces which is under attack by the tyranny of the majority.

As a theoretical and cultural question, this innovation in sociality has another, as yet undetermined significance. In the history of Western culture, there have been many sexual subcultures in the sense that I am using the term. Max Weber’s suggestive reflection on the “erotic sphere” defines these forms of eroticism–the Hellenic homosexuality of Plato’s Symposium, courtly love, the troubadours, eighteenth-century salon culture, and so on–as “a consciously cultivated, and hence, a non-routinized sphere” (344). All of these cultural creations, like the culture of the bars and baths, elaborated an eroticism unconnected to reproductive sexuality. They were outside the “social-symbolic” imperatives of reproduction in Edelman’s sense, and yet these same (sub)cultural innovations have furnished Western culture with its entire storehouse of images, symbols, and vocabularies for understanding and fantasizing sexuality and love. This paradox is another kind of evidence, I think, that the so-called social-symbolic o rder does not seamlessly link social reproduction and sexual reproduction. It is also a reminder that it is impossible to predict (or theorize) how the social and cultural innovations of gays and lesbians will affect sexuality and culture as a whole.

I have not tried to offer a more optimistic (or futurist) assessment of the gay struggle than Edelman, though he has construed my remarks in that way; his essay very pointedly conveyed a sense of the ongoing ordeal of gays in American society and a pessimism regarding inaction on the AIDS crisis, domestic partner rights, and anti-gay violence and the persistence of repressive restrictions on sexual freedom. I have also not challenged his criticism of the figure of the child as futurity, because I find it is very persuasive. So, too, Edelman offers a compelling interpretation of homophobia in his delineation of how this discourse figures the child as future in order to make the queer the figure of the death and jouissance, of the negativity, that haunts all (normalizing) fantasies of the sexual relation and sexual identity.

What I have challenged is the claim that this discourse defines, or even dominates, the political realm as such. It is the discourse of conservative Catholicism and Christian fundamentalism, and even though it resonates in strands of liberal discourse, it represents an intense reaction, backlash, against changes that have already taken place in American society, many of them as the direct result of feminism and the gay and lesbian movement. It is indeed important not to underestimate the depth and danger of this reaction, but it is a reactionary, not a foundational, discourse. The uncoupling of sexuality and reproduction is ubiquitous in American culture today as a result of multiple developments beyond the expansion of gay rights and the right to abortion, including birth control, divorce, and changing patterns of family life, as well as consumerism and mass culture; it may well be that the sheer scope, and irreversibility, of these developments also intensifies the targeting of gays by conservative ideology and Christian fundamentalist movements. But that is all the more reason to recognize that the deconstruction of the phobic figuration of the queer is a struggle to be pursued inside as well as outside politics.

I stand by my claim that Edelman builds a psychoanalytic theory of the political realm, in the sense that he gives a psychoanalytic account of what the political realm is. Politics in his account fuses the Symbolic order to the social order and, in response to the Symbolic’s inherent failure to symbolize the Real of the drives that unhinge every human being’s integration into the social-symbolic order, generates a subtending futurist-nostalgic fantasy of sexuality as reproduction. Because the fantasy too is everywhere exceeded by reality, this mechanism in turn produces the homophobic figuration Edelman has described in “The Future is Kid Stuff”: “the order of social reality demands some figural repository for what the logic of its articulation is destined to foreclose, for the fracture that persistently haunts it as the death within itself” (“Future is Kid Stuff” 28).

I cited Claude Lefort at some length because he visits the same precincts of the psychoanalytic theory of discourse in order to formulate the discursive dynamic of democracy. But rather than conceptualizing the entire social-political order as a psychic apparatus as Edelman does, Lefort draws on Lacan’s notion of the inherent gap between symbolization and the “real” to formulate the modern state’s representation of the “real” of the social. Since the democratic state limits its own powers and thus delimits civil society as the nonpolitical space it impossibly must represent, the gap between symbolic and real is the opening of political conflict and change, not an endless replication or reaffirmation of the social order. Every ideological or political articulation–whether the particular discourses of power (law, economics, aesthetics, etc.) or the institution of the state itself–holds a potentiality for change because of, not in spite of the fact that its representation of the “real” fails. Therein lies the crux of the difference between Edelman’s position and my own.

The political realm is ungrounded. It can never find a place to stand in the “real,” and yet it has no other place to stand. Edelman interprets this ungroundedness as the death that ever haunts the body politic and that it must perpetually expel in the figure of an anathema it then threatens with violence; he arrives at this interpretation, I have suggested, because he describes the democratic state as though it were a totalitarian state. It follows from that that all political participation reiterates the reproductive-anathematizing-sacrificial logic of the whole mechanism. My strong objection to this conclusion is the source of what Edelman calls my reasonableness; he is right, except that what I find unreasonable in his formulation is its rationality, the all-embracing logic to which it subjects the uncertainties and possibilities of politics.

The ungroundedness of the political realm preoccupied Hannah Arendt in her many reflections on the ancient heritage of Greek democracy. She had a strong sense that democracy is far more fragile and fleeting than modern liberal thought supposes. At the same time she linked the fragility of the body politic to its very sources of inauguration and innovation. Human mortality is a condition of action, but since action is a capacity for beginnings, inauguration, newness, it also evinces what she called human “natality.” We mortals come into the world “newcomers and beginners by virtue of birth.” This natality makes politics a realm of innovation and fragility, of the one because of the other:

Limitation and boundaries exist within the realm of human affairs, but they never offer a framework that can reliably withstand the onslaught with which each new generation must insert itself. The frailty of human institutions and laws and, generally, of all matters pertaining to men’s living together, arises from the human condition of natality and is quite independent of the frailty of human nature. The fences inclosing the property and insuring the limitations of each household, the territorial boundaries which protect and make possible the physical identity of a people, and the laws which protect and make possible its political existence, are of such great importance to the stability of human affairs precisely because no such limiting and protecting principles rise out of the activities going on in the realm of human affairs itself. The limitations of the law are never entirely reliable safeguards against action from the body politic, just as the boundaries of the territory are never entirely reliable saf eguards against action from without. The boundlessness of action is only the other side of its tremendous power for establishing relationships, that is, its specific productivity; this is why the old virtue of moderation, of keeping within bounds, is indeed one of the political virtues par excellence, just as the political temptation par excellence is indeed hubris (as the Greeks, fully experienced in the potentialities of action, knew so well) and not the will to power, as we are inclined to believe. (191)

“Natality,” awkward though the word is, acquires a new relevance in light of Edelman’s “The Future Is Kid Stuff.” Arendt evokes the human and political significance of being born–of being thrown into the world as a newcomer and beginner–without linking it to any symbol of reproduction, any fantasy of the sexual relation, any image of the child and futurity. For that very reason, she can see in our mortality-natality the essential possibilities and risks of our being the zoon politikon. 


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958.

Edelman, Lee. “Post-Partum.” Narrative 10(2002): 181-185.

—–. “The Future is Kid Stuff: Queer Theory, Disidentification, and the Death Drive.” Narrative 6 (1998): 18-30.

Konrad, George. Anti-Politics. Translated by Richard E. Allen. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Lefort, Claude. “Outline of the Genesis of Ideology in Modem Societies.” In The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, edited by John B. Thompson, 181-236. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986.

Weber, Max. “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited and translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 323-59. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1946.